Highway Hypnosis & Self-Reflection as a Spiritual Practice
Few experiences are as unsettling as “highway hypnosis”: exiting your car and realizing that you don’t remember anything about how you got to your destination.
Everyone has experienced this phenomenon of “losing time.” We’ve all spaced out in the checkout line, perhaps, or focused on homework or a paper with such intensity that we realize we haven’t blinked in an alarmingly long amount of time.
And yet there’s something about this highway hypnosis that’s especially disorienting. One reason is, of course, fear — we intuitively understand that multi-ton, high-speed machines zipping around with half-focused drivers is, you know, unsafe.
But there’s another reason, I think, that’s equally unsettling, albeit in a subtler way: the sudden realization of how much of us functions without our awareness or control.
In general, we live with the settled assumption that we’re in control of ourselves. If we want to talk to someone, we do; if we don’t, we avoid them. If we want to go to class or stroll across campus or listen to 15 hours of lo-fi study beats, we do. And if we don’t want to, we don’t. When it comes to the daily operation and direction of you, you’re the boss — or it seems that way.
But the phenomenon of highway hypnosis reveals that there are many, many ways in which you are not the boss. You are so not the boss of you, in fact, that your conscious mind can take a full daydream holiday while you’re driving and some other part of you will manage that unbelievably complex task quite well.
Unsettling, isn’t it? There’s so much you under the surface of your conscious awareness. And that subterranean you, as it turns out, isn’t even remotely under your control.
As Peter Scazzero, author of “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,” puts it, we are like icebergs. Ninety percent of us exists well below the surface of our day-to-day awareness. That’s why self-reflection, in partnership with the Spirit, is more than just a good and healthy spiritual practice. It’s the foundation for your entire spiritual life.
If we never learn to see the 90 percent below the surface that often unknowingly grabs the wheel of our experience — our wounds, fears, ignored emotions, protective vows, false selves, defensive instincts — and welcome God’s healing presence and love into it, we’ll remain mostly a mystery to ourselves.
Not only that, but many parts of the Christian life will also never quite add up or make sense. Without ever-deepening habits of self-reflection, you will spend a lot of your life hearing about Jesus’ promises of supernatural peace, healing, and transformation. And in the quietest, most secret places of your heart you’ll whisper, “I’ve never really experienced that.”
So, practically, what does the spiritual discipline of self-reflection do for us? Here are two important ways it can drive our growth with Jesus.
Honesty about Yourself
Unfortunately, no human being after the Fall is naturally wired for honesty. Each of us are children of Adam and Eve, whose first move after sinning in Genesis 3 was to hide and cover their shame. Just like them, hiding, covering, and avoiding are the default spiritual moves of everyone who’s ever lived and ever will live until Jesus returns. That includes me and you.
But if we regularly engage in practices of self-reflection in partnership with the Holy Spirit — journaling, talking with a spiritual director or counselor or campus minister, exploring our story, confession of sin, small group, and so on — we gradually gain an appetite for honesty about ourselves.
As we honestly turn to God with the parts of ourselves we’ve tried to hide, or when we let God show us something true that we’ve been avoiding, his infinite love and tender mercy begin to slowly transform us. We start to feel safe enough to drop the pretending and false selves that suffocate us or fill us with anxiety. We experience the real freedom of being more of our real selves.
But this doesn’t happen on its own. Without regular habits of self-reflection, some Christians never experience God in these deep places. They don’t know these places exist because they haven’t longed to see themselves honestly in the same way that God does.
Truth about God
A wise spiritual director once told me, “If a false version of you and a false version of God meet in prayer, nobody’s really in the room.” Another way that regular practices of self-reflection can spur new spiritual growth is by revealing false or incomplete understandings of who God is.
The classic example of this is the person who can articulate spiritual truth about God’s nature and character — his steadfast provision, perfect love, mercy, and kindness — with complete precision but whose daily life reveals that, at the heart level, they don’t really believe God is like that.
What we actually, truly believe about God isn’t what we can memorize in a catechism or from a theology textbook. It’s what we think and feel about God in the moment-to-moment experiences of life.
What do you really think about God when you don’t get something you badly wanted, when your life plan shatters, when suffering hits, or when you sin? Not “What are you supposed to think?” What do you really think?
This is where self-reflection is so crucial. Without it, we’ll miss (or misinterpret) the internal cues that signal the true convictions about God by which we live: I knew God doesn’t care about what I want. … I’m so screwed up that he can’t love me — not this time. … God never really comes through — if I want something, I have to make it happen myself.
We all carry around false or incomplete understandings of God in our heart. To see those distorted beliefs about God, we need disciplines of self-reflection that will turn our eyes inward, help us interrogate our thoughts and emotions, and highlight distortions as they flicker across our spiritual radar.
As we compare those distortions to Scripture, pray through them, and receive prayer from others for them, the Spirit slowly aligns and expands our heart until it more accurately reflects a true understanding of God. Over time, we gradually experience more wholeness of character, fullness of peace, and largeness of life that God wants to give.
Highway hypnosis is more than just a common driving phenomenon; it’s also a common life phenomenon. But unlike how we treat the driving experience, the Lord wants to do more than say “Whoa, that was weird.” He wants to explore those hidden places together with us — liberating us from their invisible control, healing our hearts, and restoring us into truer and deeper image-bearers of God.
Hands tell a story. And like my granddaddy, the story of the apostle Peter is also in his hands. It’s a story of four hands in two places, and a picture of the redemption that transforms our weakest moments.
Zelma had some joyful and some traumatic childhood moments. She was baptized as a kid, but turned away from God as she grew up. When she attended College of the Muscogee Nation, she struggled with nightmares, sleeping, and drinking. But eventually, she accepted Jesus transferred schools, and stumbled upon the InterVarsity chapter, making friends, reading Scripture, praying, and having her many questions answered. By the next year, she was leading a Bible study.
But having had several great mentors and having mentored many students myself, I find that there’s something even more fundamental: A mentor is someone who helps you see more clearly — and in doing so helps you become wise.